On his motorbike, Mohammed Derbas speeds across a field in northeast Syria, slender Saluki dogs galloping behind.
He hopes to export them for racing in the Gulf, despite war and coronavirus.
Salukis, cousins of the greyhound, have been used for hunting for thousands of years in the Middle East and are some of the fastest canines.
Saluki dogs were revered in ancient Egypt, kept as royal pets and mummified after death.
The village of Ad-Darbasiyah in Syria’s Kurdish-held northeast is famous for breeding and exporting them to the Gulf, notably to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where desert dog races are popular.
The once-lucrative export business, however, was dealt a blow by Syria’s conflict since 2011 and this year’s coronavirus pandemic, both of which have hampered trade and travel.
“Before the conflict, people from the Gulf used to visit us here, in search of the best pedigrees,” said 27-year-old Derbas, who says he has been breeding dogs for 15 years.
Even though business is slowing, Derbas keeps his 100 dogs in top shape.
Tails wagging, they rally around him as soon as he enters the fenced enclosure where they are kept.
Some hounds have their ears cropped, while others boast long legs partially dyed orange with henna.
To improve their speed and endurance, he straddles his motorbike and sets off at full speed across the arid fields on the outskirts of his village, the pack of dogs darting after him in a cloud of white dust.
The dogs he breeds can be sold for one to four million Syrian pounds (around $400 to $1 600 at the black market exchange rate), depending on their characteristics, Derbas said.
The breeder used to export between 100 and 150 dogs annually before the conflict, but that figure has dropped to 20 in recent years.
Airport closures over Covid-19 have further weakened his trade, especially since his dogs are shipped to the Gulf via Damascus airport.
“Because of the novel coronavirus crisis, the airports were closed and our activity stopped,” he said.
But the breeder expects a timid recovery after flights between Syria and Qatar resumed in late October.
In the meantime, he hopes to attract customers through social media instead.
His Instagram profile shows pictures of dead rabbits caught by his Salukis, and videos of the dogs sprinting behind a motorcycle.
Forty-year-old Jihad Mohammad shares the same passion.
“I’m so happy when I go out hunting” with the dogs, he said.
Mohammad said what was once a beloved hobby — training dogs to hunt rabbits — had now become a business for many in the area.
“I bought puppies and now I’m looking after them and training them to run,” he said.
Shukri Moussa, 70, said some families in Ad-Darbasiyah started breeding Salukis in earnest around 20 years ago.
“Back in the day the Kurds only had them for hunting, but now it’s become a trade,” he said, sitting under a tree in his courtyard, surrounded by his grandchildren.
But he said not everyone welcomed the idea as socially acceptable.
“Sometimes it upsets the villagers because they eat the chickens,” he said. — AFP